For two mothers sitting in the audience Monday at the first of three heroin summits, the statistics about heroin use in Racine County are all too real.
Kris and Christy both have 23-year-old sons who are heroin addicts. Christy’s son, Timothy, is currently in the Dane County Jail, and Kris’ son is awaiting trial here in Racine County for his alleged involvement in a heroin-related death last year.
According to a presentation by Racine County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Dan Adams, heroin-related deaths in Racine County have increased 60 percent since 2009, from about 15 to 26 in 2013, and those losses cross every racial, socioeconomic, geographic and gender line.
“This isn’t a west-end problem or a city problem,” he said. “This is a county problem, and how much you make each year or whatever your race and gender is not a factor.”
During the summit at Gilmore Middle School, various community leaders spoke to a group of about 40 residents about the heroin epidemic in Racine County. They covered a number of topics to help families understand the signs of addiction, where to turn for help, and why a comprehensive approach between citizens and law enforcement could be the answer to reducing the number of users and crimes associated with addiction.
County Executive Jim Ladwig and Sheriff Chris Schmaling both expressed disappointment with the relatively low turnout, saying similar summits it other communities had standing room only crowds.
Their opening remarks were followed by two videos of parents who lost children to heroin addiction and a heartbreaking story from Deputy District Attorney Patricia Hansen about the loss of her cousin, Nick, earlier this year.
Dr. David Gelbis-Reig, director of mental health and addiction services at Wheaton Franciscan, ran down a list of physical, behavioral and psychological changes for which loved ones should keep a lookout for possible signs of addiction. He also outlined some steps parents can take, including monitoring activity, setting firm rules with clear consequences, and contacting a professional for help.
Christy nodded during Gelbis-Reig’s presentation.
“I recognize all these steps, I’ve tried them hundreds of times,” she said, shaking her head. “The question is what are we going to do as a community.”
Schmaling pointed out that the solution includes enforcement but also requires education and community involvement.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” he said. “The goal is better understanding of the issue to build partnerships.”
There was also information about the drug treatment court, which helps willing defendants who are users enter treatment and a monitoring program to keep them out of jail.
After the summit, Kris approached Christy, tears running down her face. The two mothers hugged, and Christy said she’d had an “a-ha” moment during Gelbis-Reig’s presentation when he likened heroin addiction to a terminal illness that leads to death without treatment.
“It hit me in the face that death is inevitable because he doesn’t want help,” she said of Timothy.
Two additional summits are scheduled for Tuesday at Burlington High School and again on May 15 at Waterford High School. Both events begin at 6 p.m.
Kris squeezed Christy’s hand in understanding.
“You get to the point where you’re never really prepared, but you expect that phone call,” Kris added.